VATICAN CITY, Feb 18 – Pope Benedict XVI led a solemn ceremony in Saint Peter’s Basilica on Saturday to induct 22 new cardinals into the prestigious college that will one day elect his successor.
The 84-year-old pope, who entered the vast basilica on a rolling platform wearing red and gold vestments, presented the new “princes of the Church” with scarlet-red birettas and gold rings during the consistory that Vatican observers say could increase the chances of the next pope being Italian.
The new cardinals “are asked to serve the Church with love and vigour, with the clarity and wisdom of masters, with the energy and moral force of pastors (and) with the faith and courage of martyrs,” the pope said.
Eighteen of the 22 newcomers are under 80, the cut-off age for cardinal electors.
Critics say the appointments show a strong bias towards Europe as out of the 125 “elector cardinals,” 67 are now from Europe, with just 22 from South America, 15 from North America, 11 from Africa and 10 from Asia and the Pacific.
Of the electors, 63 have been named by the German pope and the other 62 by his Polish predecessor John Paul II.
The nomination of seven Italians in Benedict’s fourth consistory also brings to 30 the elector cardinals from Italy – almost a quarter of the total, far outweighing any other country.
Some observers say the Vatican’s increasingly powerful Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone is behind the promotion of Italians up the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy.
The vast majority of previous popes – more than 200 – have been from Italy.
The new cardinals include 16 Europeans, two Americans, one Canadian, a Brazilian, an Indian and a Hong Kong Chinese.
Among the key appointments is New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins, as well as the bishop of Hong Kong, John Tong Hon, and Archbishop George Alencherry from India.
Dolan, an influential figure in the US Catholic Church, has spoken out against gay marriage.
Brazilian Joao Braz de Aviz is the only new cardinal from Latin America, the region with the largest concentration of Catholics.
Many of the nominations were virtually automatic – for example, the bishops of Utrecht, Florence, Berlin, Prague, Toronto and New York, and certain long-serving Vatican prelates, of whom 10 were named Saturday.
The consistory comes after days of high-profile leaks, corruption allegations and even a discredited report on a plot to kill the pope, which have raised fears of a power struggle at the heart of the Catholic Church.
One of the reported rumours was that the pope is lining up Milan Archbishop Angelo Scola to be his successor. Another alleged that the Vatican’s bank was failing to comply with money-laundering rules.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi has denied the rumours, saying that the leaks were intended to “sow confusion” and put the Church “in a bad light.”
The key question being asked by Vatican insiders is whether Benedict – who turns 85 in April and is well respected for his academic work as a theologian – is becoming too distant from the day-to-day management of the Church.
The issue is crucial as Bertone’s ascendancy is seen as being one of the reasons behind the recent rash of revelations.
Following Saturday’s consistory, the pope is to announce dates for the canonisation of seven new saints including the first Native American saint, a 17th-century Mohawk girl named Kateri Tekakwitha.